Inside the ‘world’s greatest wine library’

Like wine, as it turns out, libraries are also rated by an algorithm based on points that cause just as much groaning and side-swiping as the wine-based version. The most renowned and, I’m sure you’ve guess it, the more controversial method of assessment in the United States is the ‘one to five-star system. One-star could be a school library, and a five-star one like the Folger Library located in Washington DC, where you will find copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio out of the original 233 editions (the British Library, in contrast, only has four).

The wine industry has its own library with five stars. It’s not as well-known as Folger possibly because it’s located within the state of California’s Central Valley, called the world’s largest greenhouse, or the ‘factory on the farm’. In this area, amid many miles of fertile, yet incredibly dry land is Peter J. Shield’s Library which is a lesser-known addition to the world-famous wine education center located at UC Davis that has taught a myriad of rockstar winemakers, from Christian Moueix to Cathy Corison to Alberto Antonini.

I drove here to Napa this past weekend, hoping to find out more about the reasons Hugh Johnson has chosen to donate his notes from research as well as book drafts along with manuscripts and research notes to this specific site. He had previously told me earlier that it was the best wine library anywhere in the world. Well, I’m not the only person who thought, ‘if it’s adequate to be worthy of Hugh …’.

The person who keeps the secrets

After circling the campus a couple of times, I enter the parking lot that is part of the Robert Mondavi Institute on a gloriously warm Californian Sunday. I’ve made arrangements to have a meeting with Axel Borg, the librarian who has the title of a ‘distinguished wines as well as food scientist biographer’.

On the inside, Borg has a mighty presence. He’s extremely intelligent and with a sharp story-telling. Borg has been in the library for over a decade and is aware of the secrets of the library more than anyone else.

The collection, Borg tells me, was established long prior to the time that the Davis campus was even established, dating to 1876, and was the first paper from a university on the topic of red button of the time: the phylloxera. “Unlike many academic libraries, we don’t gather with any national bias, and he says this with pride about his own collection. The library has items over 50 different languages and we do our best to collect every available translation of works’.

‘Salacious court cases between California producers’

As I walk from the wine education center, which is surrounded by shaded pathways and expansive open spaces, towards the library, Borg walks me through the most prominent people who have donated to the library collection. I also hear an overview of the most controversial legal cases involving Californian producers over the last hundred years, as well as the way the collection’s meticulous documents of the wine industry in the region were sucked up by lawyers representing the defense and prosecuting in the course of.

The script for “60 minutes”

Just a few minutes later, having walked through the rows of students studying for mid-term exams in the reading rooms of the library, I’m reading an edited text from the 60 minutes documentary about the French Paradox, the one that opened the cautious American market, which was conditioned by decades of post-Prohibition squabbling, to the pleasures of wine.

The show’s first 60 minutes was broadcast in 1991. Professor Renaud’s comments about the French Paradox. French Paradox starts at 3:30mins in the video below.

“Juggernaut of Information”

The stacks are full, and to the sides are shelves filled with newsletters, broadsides, books, pamphlets, scrapbooks, magazines, letters, and reports on crops. Below, there is the Special Collections Room, filled with some of the most precious works, including old wine labels and maps dating up to 1500 years ago. I’m trying to make sense of the massive jumble of information that’s bearing over me. It’s already my mission to determine when I’ll be able to return.

If you’re interested in wine, you’ll discover something in this article.’

If you’re a curiosity, an esoteric, or even a slight an interest in everything related to wine, you’ll discover something interesting there. First editions are a bit lopsided over one another, and so rare manuscripts.

The first written reference to terroir.

The most popular ampelographer in the world from Viala, along with Vermorel, is available here. Four complete sets, each set valued at about $25,000. And they’ve won one more than that of Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris because they have John-Baptiste’s version of a treatise on wines, Devis sur la Vigne, Vin et Vendanges, dating from 1549 which contains the first reference in writing to the terroir. Paris must be content to the fifteenth edition in 1550.

Nostradamus-style harvest predictions based on the 16th century.

Another unusual finding in those in the French segment is a collection of the Propheties Perpetuelle dating from 1521 until the end du Monde. It’s basically an agricultural almanac written by hand by King Louis XIV’s ministry of war. Based on the sun’s cycles It gives predictions reminiscent of Nostradamus of harvests beginning in the 16th century to the 21st century. It is in alarmingly titled”death of humanity. “With special attention,” the catalogue notes point out that it will be at the expense of certain varieties of wine grapes when they are harvested.’

Robert Mondavi papers

Moving the focus towards American wine, it is possible to discover the archives of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms along with tax records for wineries in California as well as the US. Undoubtedly, as Robert Mondavi gave about $40 million to create various parts that included art and wine facilities in the country, Robert Mondavi opted for the library as a way to present his vast collection of letters and papers. There are also some interesting short films that he produced but did not air on the ways consumers could think about reimagining wine to meet the needs of the future.

I could continue. I could go on and on. One of the major reasons why this library has been kept a secret up to now is geography. Davis isn’t on the majority of people’s list unless they’re specifically coming here to research. However, it is currently going through a campaign to raise funds to make digital access available. Today, only 10% of their 30000 books are available online.

If that percentage doesn’t improve the next time you visit, get the car and drive through the same way I did. The facility is open to all and not just students. It is hoped that Johnson’s gift will in establishing the intent to open the doors to a larger audience and perhaps let other wine writers know about the possibility of publishing their work here in the future.

We see ourselves as ambassadors for the world in this issue,’ claims Borg with a sly grin. We don’t want to just secure these works, but let them be available to all. The goal is to connect and facilitate discovery.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *